School for Psychics
THE STRIP. IF THERE WAS any place in the world as appropriately named, Teddy Cannon didn’t know what it was. The Las Vegas Strip had been created for the sole purpose of stripping money from tourists, stripping clothing from women, stripping dignity from drunks, and stripping romance from weddings. And Teddy loved everything about it.
Her cabdriver pulled into the entrance of the Bellagio, past the hotel’s famous fountains. He idled behind a stretch limo painted candy-apple red. It was slick and shiny and shockingly tasteless, even by Vegas standards. Teddy watched as a group of twentysomethings careened out of the limo, chanting, “Vay-gas! Vay-gas!” In the center of the group was an especially plastic-looking blonde wearing a tight dress, a tiara, and a pink party sash emblazoned with Birthday Girl. She’d probably spent her entire paycheck on that dress. Tonight she would drink too many cosmos and do something she would come to regret in the morning. There was only one place Teddy wanted to hang out with girls like that—at a poker table. They were easier to read than a copy of Us Weekly.
The driver tapped the meter. “Twenty-two fifty.” Teddy resented having to shell out money for a cab, but she didn’t have a choice. She’d sold her beloved 2004 Volvo the day before. She’d gotten five grand for it, enough to bankroll tonight’s gambling.
Teddy nodded but didn’t reach for her wallet just yet. Instead she
returned her attention to the entrance to the hotel, trying to get a read on the crowd.
“What’s the matter?” the driver asked. “You nervous?”
“Me?” She adjusted her wig. Damn, it was itchy. “Never.”
“Well, you should be. Let me tell you something. These casinos, little lady, they don’t lose.”
She met his gaze in the rearview mirror. “Neither do I.” She paused. The rest of the sentence echoed in her mind: You sexist jerk. But she silenced her snarkiness, offering a more acceptable comeback: “Because I don’t play like a ‘little lady.’?”
He laughed so hard that his considerable belly shook. Teddy knew her own belly wouldn’t shake like that. Because it was fake. One hundred percent cotton, with zero percent jiggle factor. “If you say so,” he said. “Las Vegas—everyone thinks they’re a winner!”
Not everyone Just me.
“You from around here?” he asked
“Funny. You don’t look Vegas.”
Meaning, she supposed, she didn’t look like a stripper, a cocktail waitress, a showgirl, or even that plastic blonde. She couldn’t decide if it was a compliment or an insult. Wrong, in any case.
Teddy Cannon was the epitome of Vegas. She’d grown up just a dozen miles away. And like the town itself, she was entirely self-invented.
In seventh grade, she’d been given the task of researching her ancestors and presenting an oral report about her heritage. She’d put on a sad face, hoping to play on her teacher’s sympathy and skip out of the assignment altogether. “But Mrs. Gilbert,” she’d said, “I’m adopted. I don’t know anything about my ancestors.”
Mrs. Gilbert, who was eight months pregnant at the time and supported by ankles that had swollen to the size of footballs, was crankier than usual. “Oh, for God’s sake, Teddy. Just make something up.”
It had never occurred to her that she could. She’d researched her options and decided to become Irish. Not the cherub-faced, flame-haired, grinning-men-in-green-suits Irish. No, she was Black Irish. A perpetual outsider. A member of a cunning, brawling, down-on-their-luck people. Years later, she certainly looked the part. Medium height and slight of build, sharp angles rather than soft curves. Raven-haired and eyes so pale they appeared almost silver.
Not that anyone would recognize her now.
She wore a long ash-blond wig that hid her pixie-ish hair, and contact lenses that turned her silver eyes brown. Weighted undergarments packed thirty pounds and several years onto her slender twenty-four-year-old frame. She’d found clothing at a local thrift store: starched white blouse with faint perspiration stains under the arms, black rayon skirt that pulled at her hips, faux-leather leopard-skin pumps. Lots of cheap jewelry. She wanted to look like someone who’d made an attempt to doll herself up and didn’t realize she’d failed. She’d blend right in here.
Her disguise ensured that no one would give her a second look. Because if anyone—namely security—did, she’d be screwed.
The cabdriver had been her first test. She’d passed.
She paid the fare, leveraged herself from the backseat, and headed for the casino’s revolving doors. Her panty hose rubbed between her padded thighs, emitting a distinct cricketlike chirp as she walked. Odds-on favorite for the most obnoxious noise in the universe.
She stepped inside the Bellagio and moved through the lobby. She hadn’t left her apartment in weeks. God, the money, the greed. Bet more, win more! Shrill bells. Flashing lights.
She tried to avoid flashing lights on principle, as they could trigger a seizure. She’d been diagnosed with epilepsy as a kid, and she took medication to prevent the wild, unpredictable episodes that would take hold of her (once, even, in the parking lot of the Luxor). She’d skipped her pills this morning. They dulled her senses. On meds, even walking
from her parents’ couch to the fridge felt like moving through water instead of air.
She looked at the ATMs to her right—available to those who had anything left to withdraw from their bank accounts. Some of that cash would end up in her pocket, if she made it past the overhead cameras. Getting past the facial recognition software would be tricky. She tucked in her chin and kept her gaze low.
As she walked toward the tables, the words from MGM’s chief of security replayed in her head: Permanently banned from every casino on the Strip.
The curse—delivered all those months ago, along with a restraining order—squeezed the air from her lungs. She slipped her hand into her purse, feeling for the prescription bottle just in case her body got the better of her, and walked on.
It wasn’t like she was there to storm the casino’s vault Ocean’s Eleven–style. She just wanted to play a couple hands of poker. She had to play. She had to win. And she definitely, absolutely could not get caught. Teddy wouldn’t think about the life-altering consequences if she did.
Except that was all she could think about.
First there was the Sergei factor: Sergei Zharkov, a Vegas bookie who boasted connections to the Russian Mob. A bookie with the crooked grin of an underfed coyote. Who had pet names for each of his guns. Not someone you wanted to owe $270,352. Sure, Sergei had been great fun when she was winning. A laugh a minute. But once her luck dried up—well, let’s just say it had been a long time since she’d seen that trademark grin of his.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was also the most stupendously stupid and seriously selfish thing she had ever done, atop a long list of majorly questionable decisions: she had forged three withdrawals from her parents’ retirement savings account. She’d taken $90,000,
a deposit on the money she owed, to buy a little time. Show him she was good for it.
Sergei had given her until the end of the week to pay him back in full. If she failed . . . If he decided to go after her parents for the rest of the cash . . . Teddy straightened her shoulders, refusing to let panic dig its ugly claws into her.
A casino security guard strolled right past her, not even sparing her a glance. Good. Her plan was working. She could still fix everything. Take care of Sergei. Keep her parents safe. Pay all the money back before anyone found out what she’d done.
The poker room was crowded, noisy. An attendant directed her toward an open table. Teddy took a seat. Texas Hold’em, no limit. She could play anything, but this was her favorite game.
She cleared her throat and put on a syrupy Southern accent. “Can I buy some chips from one of y’all?” She emptied her purse on the table, sending her prescription bottle, coins, and receipts everywhere. That was her play: make everyone think she was dumb and drunk. Teddy extracted the crisp hundred-dollar bills and stuffed the rest of the debris back in her purse.
The dealer, a reasonable-looking guy in his forties, rolled his eyes and exchanged her cash for chips. A cocktail waitress magically appeared at her side and asked what she wanted to drink. “Thanks, sugar,” Teddy said. “Can I have another rum and Coke, please?” Another, as though she’d been drinking all night. It was a nice touch, if she did say so herself, and Teddy hoped the other players at the table had caught it. Devil in the details and all that.
Teddy rested her forearms against the table’s gold leather bumper, ran her fingers over the expanse of green felt. The nerves that had seized her just minutes earlier vanished, as they always did when she prepared to play.
Teddy cracked her knuckles. This was it. Her last shot.
The dealer sent her a nod. “Ready?”
Was she ready? It had been months since she was in a casino. Five months, three days, and two hours, to be precise. She positively ached to play. “Absolutely.”
The blinds placed their opening bets. Fifty and one hundred, respectively. Teddy shifted forward as the hole cards were dealt. She picked up total trash: eight-three off-suit. Fine. She’d fold early and get a read on the table.
There were eight other players, plus the dealer. A few men in expensive suits, out-of-towners on business, she guessed. Sure, they wanted the bragging rights of a big win, but Teddy doubted they would risk the wrath of their wives at home to get it. Next: an attractive Chinese woman in her forties wearing a chunky diamond ring. She looked slightly bored. Maybe killing time while waiting for a show to start. Seated to the woman’s right were two guys in their fifties—regulars, probably. Solid players who knew the dealer by name.
The last player slipped in just after Teddy did and took the chair to her left. Like her, he rested his forearms on the leather bumper while he played. He’d rolled back the sleeves of his blue dress shirt to expose forearms that were tanned and corded with muscle. She keyed in on his hands. Hands that looked strong and capable. She watched as he toyed with his chips. She felt her body flush. Damn. She didn’t have time for this.
Teddy allowed her gaze to drift upward. Wide chest, broad shoulders. No tie, shirt unbuttoned enough to catch a glimpse of more skin. Then her gaze reached his profile, and she sucked in a breath. He was flat-out gorgeous. The kind of guy who, under normal circumstances, would instantly make her to-do list. Cheekbones, green eyes, a strong nose just crooked enough to keep him from being too pretty, like he’d been in a few fights but the other guys always came out looking worse.
As though aware of her silent assessment, he turned slightly and acknowledged her with a tilt of his chin. He was even better-looking
dead-on. Teddy forced her attention back to her cards. Tonight she had only one man on her mind: Sergei Zharkov.
The next hand she drew better hole cards, picking up a pair of tens. She met the opening hundred and stayed in the game. One of the businessmen dropped out and so did one of the locals. Everyone else stayed in for the flop. The dealer turned three cards: five of clubs, jack of spades, seven of hearts.
The Chinese woman raised another hundred. The remaining players got out of the way and folded, leaving it up to Teddy.
Teddy knew the woman was bluffing.
“But how do you know that?” her old friend Morgan had asked a year or two ago (whined like a six-year-old, really, if Teddy was being honest) after accompanying her to a casino and losing nearly a grand. “How do you know they’re bluffing?”
Teddy could lecture all day long about tells. Watch their eyes—did they glance at their own chip stack or look away? Study their mouths—were their jaws relaxed or tense? If they touched their chips, it meant this; if they touched their cards, it meant that. But the real answer, at least for Teddy, came down to instinct. She knew because she knew. She never tried to explain it to anyone, because she thought it would sound ridiculous. It was kind of like how kids learned to count on their fingers without being shown. Just a way to work out a problem. She couldn’t tell exactly what people were thinking, but she could always tell if they were lying. For when they did, a feeling of anxiety so acute, so alarming, took over—it was as if every molecule in the universe were telling her to trust her gut.
“You know that feeling when you’re walking down an alley and you think you’re being followed?” Teddy asked Morgan. “When you get into an elevator with someone who looks like a creep? When the voice inside your head shouts, THIS IS WRONG! and you have no choice but to listen?” But Morgan never understood, exactly. Anyway, Teddy learned early that it was easier to keep her explanations to herself.
From a young age, Teddy’s gut had taught her a hard truth: everybody lies. Her father lied when her mother asked about her cooking; her classmates lied when the teacher asked about their homework; her supposed friends lied when she asked about their weekend plans. She couldn’t live in a constant state of anxiety, but she also couldn’t live with the constant heartbreak of knowing that the people she trusted were untrustworthy. So she’d done her best to shut out the feeling everywhere except the poker table. Her medication helped dull the feeling, too, but focus was harder. That’s why she’d skipped her pill tonight. Because tonight she needed every edge to win.
Not a single casino had ever been able to prove she cheated. That’s because she didn’t—technically.
Teddy looked at the woman and called the raise. The turn showed an eight.
Without checking her cards, Teddy pushed in another pot-sized raise, which was more than the rest of her stack. Teddy sat very still, considering the woman across from her.
“All in.” The woman said.
That feeling overtook her—her pulse raced, sweat formed on her palms. The woman had nothing. She was bluffing.
You can’t play me. I’m basically a human lie detector.
“I think I’m gonna go all in, y’all. Is this how that works?” Teddy said as she pushed her remaining chips into the pot. Then Teddy smiled as the woman mucked her cards.
* * *
An hour passed, and then another. No big winners, no big losers. Teddy took down more pots than anyone else.
God, she missed this—the waxy flutter of playing cards, the clatter of chips, and the clubby insider jargon that defined the game: the blinds, the flop, the turn, the river. But most of all, she missed who she was when she played. She felt . . . plugged in. Switched on. As
though some essential part of her came to life only when she was seated at a casino table. She positively thrived here. Which made it even more obscenely unfair that she’d been banned from every casino on the Strip.
The dealer lightly clapped his hands and stepped away from the table, indicating a shift change. Teddy tipped him and stood, taking the opportunity to unstick her skirt from her panty hose. As she waited for the new dealer to step in, Teddy glanced around the room. Her gaze landed on a man sitting by himself at the bar. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him before, but something about him caught her attention and held it. He was a big guy—NFL-linebacker big. Midfifties, African American, casual dress. But nothing else about him was casual. Unlike other patrons, he struck her as purposeful, as though waiting for something or someone. He looked suspicious, and she was sure her instincts would kick in to warn her. But they didn’t. Then he abruptly picked up his drink and left the room.
* * *
Things were going well: she was winning—almost fifty grand up—and no one seemed to have recognized her.
A cocktail server made her rounds. “Gin and tonic,” the guy said, then gestured toward Teddy’s empty glass. “And a rum and Coke.”
Teddy jerked her attention back to the table. “What? Oh, no, thanks. I’m fine.”
“You certainly are.”
A line? When I’m dressed like this? Do you think I’m an idiot?
She didn’t need her instincts to know that he was a player. Her gaze slid to his left hand. No ring, but that didn’t mean anything. Not in a town like Vegas.
She looked at the server. “Coke’s fine. Extra ice, skip the rum.”
“Suit yourself.” The guy held out his hand. “I’m Nick, by the way.”
“Te—” she started, then caught herself just in time. “Anne.”
He smiled, cocked his head to one side, and drew his brows together as though deep in thought. “TeAnne? Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone named TeAnne before.”
She played along. “Well, it’s an unusual name. A family name, actually. My mother’s TeJoan and my father’s TeJack.”
“Ah.” He grinned. “That explains it.”
She settled back in her chair. She knew how Vegas worked. She wasn’t naive enough to believe any of this was real. A guy like Nick could have any woman in the room. At the moment, she had all the sexual allure of a middle-school teacher with swollen ankles. No, he was trying to throw her off her game, win back some of his money. It wasn’t personal, just strategy.
“And you’re just plain ol’ Nick,” she said.
“Yup. Just plain ol’ Nick.”
“Well, just plain ol’ Nick, nice stack of chips you’ve got there.”
“Not as big as yours, though.”
“You don’t play as well as I do.”
“True,” he said. “Got any pointers?”
“Sure. Quit while you’re ahead.”
“That’s what you should do, TeAnne. Quit while you’re ahead.” Except he wasn’t smiling when he said it. Teddy flushed for a different reason altogether. Did he work for the casino? Or Sergei?
Teddy refocused her attention on the table. She noticed that the businessmen had left, replaced by two of the plastic blondes who had pulled up in the limo earlier. A fat stack of chips sat between them. It was time to get to work. She had been playing tight all night. No big moves, no showy hands. But with the addition of the plastic blondes, the mood at the table shifted, like when she’d hit the accelerator on her old Volvo. Stakes shot up with each hand. Her winnings grew. The rest of the players leaned in.
* * *
A little after two in the morning, Nick caught her eye. The last few heavy losses had been his, but he wasn’t backing down. She peeked at her hole cards and made up her mind: he was her next target.
She pushed every round. Raised big before and after the flop and again at the turn. She studied Nick. Again, Teddy waited for the feeling of anxiety to take hold, but nothing. Her body turned cold, so cold her skin pebbled. There was a faint metallic tang on her tongue.
She spun around to find that the African-American guy she’d noticed earlier had returned. She tried to focus on the game, but now she couldn’t get a read on anyone. She couldn’t tell who was holding, who was bluffing. Her head pounded. Not a seizure—not now. She reached for the meds in her bag, her throat suddenly dry. Her hands shook and she spilled pills on the carpet. She bent down to gather them.
When she looked up, she saw Sergei drifting by the tables, checking out the action. Teddy swallowed. He hadn’t noticed her, not yet, but if there was anything her bookie was good at, it was sniffing out weakness. Sure enough, his gaze landed on her. There was no recognition in his eyes, but his frown told her he was thinking. Teddy did not want to be the one to make Sergei Zharkov think.
“Ma’am?” the dealer said. “Your bet.”
Every sensation she experienced was magnified, the blast of the AC on her already cold skin, the itch of her wig, the feeling of pills in her hand. She could hear conversations from tables away as if they were unfolding next to her. Teddy’s vision swam as she tried to focus on her cards. A pair of jacks with one on the board, giving her three of a kind. She was up $50,000. A minute ago she’d thought her cards were enough to win, but now she wasn’t sure. She was playing blind. She shoved her entire stack of chips into the pot. It was an ugly move, but it was the only thing she could think to do. A gasp sounded around the table. Over one hundred thousand riding on a single card. The pit boss strolled over to watch. So did a pair of casino security guards.
The other players folded fast. All eyes shot to Nick. He waited a
beat. Then, his gaze fixed on Teddy, he met her bet. “You know,” he drawled, “it’s funny. All my life, I’ve been lucky with the ladies.”
“That’s how the saying goes,” Teddy said. “Lucky in love, unlucky at—”
The corner of his lip twitched as if he was fighting a grin. He flipped his cards.
Two queens. A third sat on the board.
She’d lost it all. Everything. Gone.